Brittany Vessely

Brittany Vessely

Sexual abuse of children is one of society’s most heinous crimes. The pain experienced by victims and their families is excruciating and is endured for decades. According to the CDC, one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before they turn 18.

Despite the widespread nature of this societal ill, no institution has been more highly scrutinized and criticized than the Catholic Church. Here in Colorado, the spotlight that has been put on the three Catholic dioceses can and should be used as an example of how to help protect all children, and how to compassionately care for survivors.

As Attorney General Phil Weiser said last week, the two-year review and reparations model cooperatively used by the state and the Church was not perfect, but it was a “unique Colorado solution that was collaborative, committed to transparency, and provided survivors with the support that they desperately needed.”

The strength of this approach was that it addressed both the past and the future.

In terms of the past, how is justice best delivered when the perpetrators and the people who enabled them are all dead or long since removed from an organization? While the need for survivor healing and reparations of course persists, how can an organization make appropriate amends for egregious things that happened decades ago, without unfairly punishing the current members of the institution that had nothing to do with the crimes? And more importantly, how can it be done in a way that best supports the survivors in their healing?

The Independent Reconciliation and Reparations Program (IRRP) used by the three Colorado dioceses strived to find the appropriate balance in answering those questions. For survivors, it put them in control of the process. It was as confidential and private as they desired, and it was removed from having to work directly with the Church or having to navigate a lengthy and intrusive legal process that would make their psychological wounds and medical records visible to the public.

As Nancy Feldman — the former manager of the Office of Victims Programs within the Colorado Department of Public Safety and a member of the Independent Oversight Committee — put it, "The IRRP program gave victim-survivors an opportunity to have their abuse acknowledged as well as receive support and monetary reparations. I am pleased that so many people were able to utilize this non-adversarial program and I hope this process provided some comfort to them.”

As for the dioceses, they paid a substantial, but not debilitating price to fund this program. This both serves the survivors by giving them the help and support they need, and allows the Church to continue to do its ministerial work for the community, such as its homeless outreach, care for the poor and marginalized, and other social services.

But addressing the past is only part of the process. Many survivors will say the main reason they finally come forward is to protect others from being harmed.

As Weiser said, “Perhaps the most significant part of this tale is that (the dioceses) made meaningful reforms. They took accountability and addressed the failings that our Special Master Robert Troyer identified earlier, making measurable improvements in how they protect children and address allegations of childhood sexual abuse.”

So as legislators return to work in 2021 and debate ways to address this critical issue, they should strongly consider creating a public program modeled after the work the attorney general and the Catholic Church just completed.

Such a program would provide a way for any youth-serving institution to support survivors through a simple, safe, and fair process, and at the same time require the institution to have their current policies evaluated to ensure they are utilizing the very best practices for protecting children and preventing future abuse.

“The work we have to do is make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Weiser said. “And I believe the work we have done in this process has put us on that path to have that.”

Brittany Vessely is executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference.

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